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caption: Guests are shown dining inside of Gracia on Monday, November 16, 2020, along Ballard Avenue Northwest in Seattle. New statewide restrictions, including a ban on indoor dining beginning Wednesday, were announced by Gov. Jay Inslee on Sunday to curb the rapid spread of Covid-19.
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Guests are shown dining inside of Gracia on Monday, November 16, 2020, along Ballard Avenue Northwest in Seattle. New statewide restrictions, including a ban on indoor dining beginning Wednesday, were announced by Gov. Jay Inslee on Sunday to curb the rapid spread of Covid-19.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Inslee announces new WA reopening plan, ditches county-by-county phases for regional approach

Restaurants and gyms in Washington could start to reopen next week, once current restrictions expire — but there’s no guarantee.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee on Tuesday announced a new, region-by-region reopening plan set to take effect on Monday, January 11.

The plan, dubbed "Healthy Washington," consists of two phases. Each region will be in phase one come Monday, and will be advanced to the next phase — without having to apply — based on Covid-19 case and hospitalization data routinely collected by the state Department of Health.

"We've learned a lot about Covid in this pandemic, and we are adjusting to it as we go, using the latest scientific information," Inslee said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

When each region enters phase one next week, gyms will be permitted to resume appointment-based fitness training, with no more than one client per room or within 500 square feet for larger facilities.

The first phase of the plan also opens the door to resuming live entertainment outdoors, with attendance limited to ticketed groups of 10 or less and a maximum of two households. That includes zoo attendance, along with outdoor concert and theater programs.

Phase one does not, however, permit indoor dining or gatherings to any extent. A lot has to go right for restaurants and gyms to resume indoor service at 25% capacity in phase two.

Under the new rules, it’s a four-part test: A 10% decrease in positive Covid rates over a two-week period, a 10% decrease in Covid hospital admissions, a positive Covid test rate of less than 10%, and an intensive care unit occupancy rate that’s less than 90% — that's for both Covid and non-Covid patients.

The state’s new Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah explained why the state adopted a regional approach.

"We know that our lives are interconnected, that travel patterns and activity patterns are not just about what happens in one community or one county," he said, adding that regions must meet all four metrics in order to move from phase one to phase two.

However, once advanced to phase two, a region need only maintain three out of four criteria in order to remain there.

Some see the new reopening plan as a day late and a dollar short.

“This new plan is intended to offer a road map for reopening the economy, but it’s an incomplete map at best with a destination that remains out of reach for too many small businesses struggling to survive the pandemic," said Kris Johnson, president of the Washington Association of Business in an email statement.

"Impacted employers need the ability to reopen today (at a minimum 25% capacity), with appropriate safety measures — not a new system with a new set of metrics. It’s unfortunate this plan doesn’t currently provide a pathway to opening beyond 25% capacity for those businesses impacted or closed, and it fails to spell out a way for businesses to fully reopen. We fear this will only make it harder for many communities, employers and families to begin the long process of rebuilding."

The earliest a region could move into phase two would be next Monday, officials say. But concerns over the state of the pandemic loom.

Health officials in California and Colorado reported the first U.S. cases of an apparently more contagious variant of Covid-19, first found in the United Kingdom. It hasn’t yet been detected in Washington, but Shah said it’s likely a matter of time.

Inslee wouldn’t speculate on how that might affect this latest reopening plan.

On the vaccine front, Inslee pointed to what he called "encouraging" conversations with a number of hospital CEOs around the state, who he said have reported relatively high rates of vaccine administration for the doses they've received thus far.

However, there's room for improvement, he said.

"We're looking for ways to have a more efficient way to move [the] vaccine from one hospital to another, if there's an excess supply," Inslee said, adding that state officials are looking at ways to help hospitals establish off-site vaccination units.

Inslee also cited an unpredictable vaccine delivery schedule from the federal government as a barrier to coordinating large-scale vaccination efforts on the ground.

Currently, health care workers, along with residents and staff at long-term care facilities have vaccine priority. As the vaccine becomes available to members of the general public, there will be no sign-up lists. Rather, the state will have an online system in place for checking one's eligbility to get vaccinated, Inslee said.

"No one has dates, yet, but the Department of Health will provide a phase finder system on the internet, so that you can basically type in your criteria personally, and it will tell you ... what phase that you will be in based on that personal criteria. It will also notify you when those phases occur," he said.

"I can assure people, people will have plenty of notice when we reach those phases so that you'll know when it's time to go actually get your vaccine."

Inslee said the Department of Health would announce more on vaccination priority phases come Wednesday.

In the meantime, officials are urging people to continue wearing masks, getting tested when exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms, and social distancing to the greatest extent possible.